Let's get it out of the way right off the bat. There were no Beatles in sight when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took to the stage last night to thrill forty thousand fans as the headline act for London's Hard Rock Calling music festival. Nor where there any other special musical guests, for that matter. It was just a high octane burn through three hours of his greatest rock 'n' roll. And that was more than enough for us. Judging from from the cheering, we'd say the crowd agreed.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Ordinarily three-days, this year's fest crammed a double dose of amazing acts into it's second and final day. The weather was fine (reportedly the hottest day London has had all summer), and so was the vibe. First, we caught up with our old friend and VH1 You Oughta Know alum Lissie, who geared up for her slot on the grandstand with a stripped down mini-set in the backstage lounge! Her intense folky rasp sounded even better in an intimate setting, and we even got a little live sneak peek at some tracks off her new album Back To Forever, which comes out in September.
She's about to hit the world-wide touring circuit pretty hard, but she admits that this festival is among her favorite gigs. "Hard Rock is like a nice group of people who are enjoying their day," she tells us. "It’s not a festival where you have to trudge in the middle of nowhere in mud. It’s got the festival vibe, but it feels easy. You know, it’s not as stressful." With four stages of simultaneous music, the most stressful part is trying to decide to who to watch!
One of the best parts about going to a music festival is discovering new gems among your old favorites, and the biggest pleasant surprise of our day was new group, the Carnabys. And we do mean "new" group. When they first walked onto the backstage lounge, they looked a little like 12-year-olds jamming at recess. “No, 14 at least!” guitarist Ben Gittins laughed when we told them as much. They're all just 19, but their sound is fully grown. Lead singer Jack Mercer's young frame hides a deceptively husky voice, perfected for the balls-out garage-rock swagger that their swinging sixties name suggests.
Apparently we weren't the only ones impressed with the Carnabys. They are the winners of the Hard Rock Rising battle of the bands, beating out twelve thousand other hopefuls for the chance to perform on Hard Rock Calling mainstage! We had to ask: what the hell is it like for newbies to make such a huge jump and play in front of that many people?
“I've never played a stage like this before. I'd be playing my guitar, and suddenly I'd look up and it would slow down. Like 'Wow, look at all these people, look at where I am.' I'd have a little moment to myself, and then it was back to work," Ben told us. "It was a fantastic thing. It was different, but we really rose to the occasion. I'm really proud of us. That's a huge thing to do. Opening for the Boss? It was great.”
We followed our time with the ever-so-English lads with a trio of down home Southern rockers, starting with the Zac Brown Band, who had just flown in playing at the Glastonbury festival the day before. The triple Grammy-winners ended their set with back to back covers: Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" (an obvious choice for the Atlanta boys), and Led Zepellin's "Kashmir" (less obvious, but no less awesome).
Of course they also played country chart number one's like "Chicken Fried," "Keep Me Mind," "Colder Weather," and other familiar favorites. Familiar to us, that is. When we chatted with Zac, Clay Cook and Jimmy De Martini after their set, the guys said that they found connecting to the English crowd a challenge, albeit a welcome one. "You hope to engage them," Zac told us. "[At home] we sell out twenty-eight thousand hard tickets, and all of our fans know our music and know what to expect. But here it's fun because it's the old challenge of trying to figure out how to break through to then, how to pick our set list and do it the right way and try to engage them. You have to set yourself apart from all the other acts and everybody else that's playing. It's fun, we're back in the beginning again."
Then fellow dixie-landers Alabama Shakes hit the mainstage and reduced us to tears with one of the greatest live performance we have ever seen. We've told you about that already, but let's gush a little more. From their opening number of "Hang Loose," Brittany Howard kept the crowd enraptured with her soul spouting vocals, and rippin' guitar work. The emotional vulnerability Howard displayed (not to mention sheer skill of her band), convinced us that we truly witnessed something transcendent. We can't wait to see them again!
The Black Crowes brought up the rear of the southern-friend threesome with their trademark extended instrumental jams that stretched tunes to the breaking point. In fact, they fit only 7 songs over the course of 50 minutes! From the get-go with "Twice As Hard," lead singer Chris Robinson acted as the prototypical Jesus frontman; sporting his trademark flowing linen shirt, bushy black beard, aviator glasses and a messianic stance. He even had a Persian carpet placed under his mic! Too cool. These guys were purpose built for rockin' out at an abnormally hot and dusty festival. They cooled it down a bit for the gentle "She Talks To Angels," before laying into their first hit, a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle." But before we knew what was happening, the band hijacked their best known song and drove it straight into a version of Deep Purple's "Hush." When they finally circled back to finish the original song, we wished the ride would never stop.
Then the tension began to mount as all four of the stages across the site grew uncharacteristically quiet. The whole festival lay in wait for Bruce to take us home. And of course, there was the inescapable question that had been hanging over the whole weekend: Would the Boss bring out Paul McCartney to finish out their duet that had tragically been cut short the previous year? We asked his guitar wielding E Street Band deputy Lil Stevie Van Zandt about the likelihood of any surprise visits from fellow rock legends. "I don't know, I think we chased them all away," he laughed. "No plans that I know of. But then again, anything's possible."
By the time Bruce struts onstage like a conquering hero, we're ready for anything. "How're we lookin'?" the extremely fit 63-year-old asks the crowd over the opening chain-gang stomp of "Shackled and Drawn." Famously a man of the people, he makes his way down to the very front row and starts giving high fives. "What's a poor boy to do but keep singin' his song," he shouts into the night. And it's true; over the years, Bruce has never stopped. He gestures to the sea of people and drinks in the applause that clearly sustains him. The tune draws to a close with the entire E Street Band jigging at the edge of the stage like a rock Riverdance. Michael Flatley would be proud.
He produces his war-torn Telecaster for "Badlands," and Lil Stevie joins him at the mic, ever the swashbuckling guitarist with his trademark bandana tied around his head. Longtime guitarist Nils Nofgren tears it up on his rosewood Strat, twirling and spinning like a dervish and even playing with his teeth. The fun that they're clearly having is infectious. The Carnabys were right! The show is essentially a three-hour encore. It's been said many times, but Springsteen treats every song like his last chance to bust out of this old town and pull outta here to winnnnnnn.
The number ends and Bruce runs down into the front row again, grabbing a cardboard sign from a fan reading "Johnny 99." He holds to sign up to the band, then to the jumbotron camera, and sure enough they belt out "Johnny 99"! He pulls a similar trick for the next number, "Reason To Believe." No one clued us in to the whole sign request thing, but we dig it! We would have made one for "Rosalita"...
"Last night in Coventry we did Born To Run, so tonight we'll do Born In The USA for you," he tells us. For a minute we're a little bummed. We had kind of hoped to hear his arguably most famous song tonight. But as "Born In The USA" gives way to "Cover Me," and then to "Darlington County," we realize we misunderstood. He's going to play the whole album! And that's exactly what he does. The slow and airy "I'm On Fire" drifts out into the audience like a welcomed cool breeze on the sweltering day, chilling us out before he burns the place down again with "Glory Days." He usually pulls one lucky lady from the crowd to boogie on "Dancin' In The Dark," but tonight he brought his own partner: his 87-year-old mother Adele! Then he leads "baby sis" Pam onto the stage to complete the family affair.
These crowd-pleasing gestures never come across as anything but totally warm and genuine. He plucks a little girl from the crowd and gives her a piggy back right in the middle of "Waiting On A Sunny Day," before handing her the mic and urging her to sing the the words. Understand us right: the entire band STOPPED playing, and all forty thousand of us were dead silent as the tiny Brit sang, thus becoming the gutsiest child in the United Kingdom. He gives his guitar pick to another audience member in exchange for their request sign. He flashes the message "Jungleland" to one and all, and off they go on the 9 minute epic. Young Jake Clemons fills his late uncle Clarence's shoes admirably on the sax duties, and even Bruce seems moved at the remembrance of his old friend.
We get the dose of "Born To Run," that we all secretly craved, and then he leads Zac Brown out to help him out on "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." The E Street Band finished up with "American Land," leaving the stage empty for a moment. The crowd held its breath. Is there a Beatle in the house? The answer is…no. But we did get something that might be even better. Bruce's final encore is a never-before-played acoustic solo version of "My Lucky Day." And it's our lucky day, too. It's happy, hopeful, sweet, and one of a kind. What better way to cap off the festival?
Until next year...
[Photo: Getty Images]